This study was based on two telephone surveys conducted
in the United States. The first survey, conducted in early 1991, was considered
representative of 1990 data. The second, conducted between November, 1997
and February, 1998, was considered representative of 1997. The two surveys
were similar in structure.
The surveys were carried out by random digit telephone dialing and were
limited to one English-speaking respondent, 18 years or older, from each
The target sample size was 1,500 for the 1990 survey and 2,000 for the
1997 survey. The latter target size was based on a power calculation: an
80% probability of detecting an increase in the overall use of alternative
medicine from 34% (noted in 1990) to 39% or more.
Because of an overall trend towards lower response rates to telephone
surveys, a financial incentive was offered for participation in 1997 ($20
per participant, and $50 to convert some refusers to participants). No
financial incentive had been offered in 1990.
Survey results were weighted to reflect geographic variation in household
size and response rate and were also weighted on sociodemographic variables.
Although the 1997 survey was more detailed and lengthy than the 1990
survey, most of the questions posed in 1990 were again posed in 1997. These
replicated questions, which enable the comparison of the two surveys, are
the focus of this report. Survey questions explored:
Major medical problems during the preceeding 12 months and consultations
with medical doctors for these problems.
Use of 16 prespecified alternative medical therapies during the previous
year and lifetime use of these therapies, both supervised by a practitioner
Degree of insurance coverage for each of the therapies for which a practitioner
Estimation of the cost of alternative therapies, taking into account visits
to practitioners, degree of insurance coverage and use of products such
as vitamins, herbs and commercial diets.
Overall use in 1997
According to the data, 42% of the population used at least one alternative
therapy in 1997. Use was more frequent among women than men (49% vs. 38%),
and was most frequent (50%) in the 36-49 year age bracket. Use was higher
in those with college education (51%) and with incomes over $50,000 (48%).
Use of alternative therapies
Of the 16 therapies surveyed, the most commonly used in 1997 were:
The remaining 12 therapies and their use in 1997 were: spiritual healing
by others (7.0%), mega-vitamins (5.5%), self-help group (4.8%), imagery
(4.5%), commercial diet (4.4%), folk remedies (4.2%), lifestyle diet (4.0%),
energy healing (3.8%), homeopathy (3.4%), hypnosis (1.2%), biofeedback
(1.0%), acupuncture (1.0%).
Relaxation techniques (primarily meditation), used by 16.3% of the population
(up from 13.1% in 1990). Of those who used this technique, 15.3% consulted
a practitioner in 1997.
Herbal medicine, used by 12.1% (compared with only 2.5% in 1990).
Of users in 1997, 15.1% consulted a practitioner.
Massage, used by 11.1% (compared with 6.9% in 1990). Of 1997 users, 61.6%
consulted a practitioner.
Chiropractic, used by 11% (10.1% in 1990). Of users, 89.9% consulted a
practitioner in 1997.
Overall, 42.1% of the population used one or more of these techniques
in 1997, compared with 33.8% in 1990.
Visits to practitioners
Based on the average number of users, percentage of users who consulted
a practitioner and average number of visits per user who consulted a practitioner,
the authors estimated the numbers of visits to alternative medicine practitioners
in 1997. For all therapies combined, the estimated number of visits was
628,825,000 (which was 62% more than the total number of visits to primary
care physicians in 1997).
Visits to chiropractors (191,886,000) and to massage practitioners (113,723,000)
accounted for half of all visits to alternative practitioners.
The number of visits to any practitioner, per 1,000 population, increased
from 2,373 in 1990 to 3,176 in 1997, an increase of 34%. Overall,
46.3% of users of alternative medicine sought care from a practitioner
in 1997, compared with 36.3% in 1990.
Specific medical conditions
In 1997, 42% of all alternative therapies used were attributed to treating
specific medical problems, whereas 58% were used, at least in part, for
prevention. Overall, 31.8% of respondents who saw a medical doctor
for a specific condition in 1997 also used an alternative therapy for that
condition (up from 19.9% in 1990). Of respondents who saw a practitioner
of alternative therapy in 1997, 96% also saw a medical doctor. The majority
of those who saw a medical doctor did not discuss their use of alternative
therapy with this doctor.
Medical conditions for which alternative therapies were most likely
to be used included:
Neck problems, reported by 12.1% of respondents in 1997. Of those who reported
neck problems, 57% had used at least one alternative therapy during the
previous 12 months, most commonly chiropractic and massage.
Back problems, reported by 24% in 1997. Of these, 47.6% had used an alternative
therapy, again most commonly chiropractic and massage.
Anxiety (reported by 5.5%), depression (5.6%) and insomnia (9.3%). Resondents
with these problems used alternative therapies quiet frequently -- 42.7%
of those with anxiety, 40.9% of those with depression (both used mainly
relaxation and spiritual healing) and 26.4% of those with insomnia (who
used mainly relaxation and herbal medicine).
Other problems which were reported, and for which over 25% of those reporting
the problem used alternative therapies in 1997 included fatigue (most commonly
used therapies were relaxation and massage), arthritis (relaxation, chiropractic),
headaches (relaxation, chiropractic) and digestive problems (relaxation,
In 1997, insurance coverage for alternative therapies was complete for
15.3%, partial for 26.4% and zero for 58.3%.
Costs for visits to practitioners were estimated by two methods, a more
conservative method and a less conservative one that was based on the RBRVS
scale. According to the more conservative method, total expenditure on
alternative medicine professional services in the United States was 21.2
billion dollars in 1997, compared with 14.6 billion dollars in 1990
Out-of-pocket expenses for alternative medicine include expenses for
professional services not covered by insurance plus expenses for products
such as vitamins, herbal medicines, commercial diets and books, classes
and equipment. In 1997, using a conservative estimate, total out-of-pocket
expenses for alternative medicine in the United States came to 27 billion
dollars. This should be compared to estimated 1997 out-of-pocket expenses
for all physician services of 29.3 billion dollars and out-of-pocket payments
for hospitalization of 9.1 billion dollars.